Liberty is at stake! Our constitutional system is under attack! Kim R. Holmes fears that barbarians are at the gates, poised to plunder the holy city of conservatism. The peril does not come from progressive hordes. Holmes argues that national conservatism, common-good conservatism, and other new movements fly false flags. They seek “to undermine and ultimately overturn traditional American conservatism.”
By his account, core conservative principles are at stake: “individual rights, civil liberties, limited government, constitutional originalism, judicial restraint, and economic freedom.” I agree. But I find Holmes unconvincing. He’s wrong about how the American culture of freedom needs to be defended in the third decade of the twenty-first century.
Consider the principle of limited government. The American founders recognized that government must be pinioned; otherwise, it gorges on power and becomes a Leviathan. Drawing on Montesquieu, James Madison successfully urged a constitution that ensures the “separation of powers” so that competition between the branches of government would hold each in check.
The American founders recognized that government must be pinioned; otherwise, it gorges on power and becomes a Leviathan.
The design was ingenious. But Madison knew that limited government requires a self-governing people capable of bringing order to their lives, families, and communities. Such people do not need minute administration of their affairs by remote bureaucrats. Indeed, they resent and resist governmental usurpation of their decisions, duties, and responsibilities. And the founders were not so naive as to imagine that men are automatically self-governing. It was for this reason that George Washington and others in the founding generation urged the promotion of religion, the most effective engine of moral uplift in society.
Aristotle observed that a stalwart middle class provides another important guard against tyranny. Unlike the rich, who often grasp for ever-greater power, middling citizens do not seek to rule. But unlike the poor, who lack the resources or self-esteem to resist tyranny, the middle class will not be pushed around. Thomas Jefferson echoed Aristotle when he hymned the virtues of the “yeoman farmer,” whom he regarded as the ideal citizen and the foundation of a free society. In the twentieth century, the middle-class homeowner superseded Jefferson’s quasi-mythic figure. He resists the blandishments of the welfare state and its soul-sapping trap of dependency—and he refuses to be cowed by the great and the good.
Thus, if we wish to rescue limited government, which is so important for the sustaining of our freedom, we must consider its three buttresses: separation of powers, moral education, and a wide and prosperous middle class. Are they functioning well? And if not, what must be done to restore and renew them?
These are complex questions and, pace Holmes, they cannot be answered by stomping our feet and insisting upon “conservative principles.” Indeed, it is an irresponsible conservative who is satisfied with ritual incantations of “limited government,” “individual rights,” and “economic freedom.” Politics runs on practical action, which means cultivating prudent political judgments about what policies and platforms will best defend (and restore) limited government.
So, let us set aside abstractions such as “traditional conservatism” and talk about reality. Our system of government is out of kilter. The administrative state, housed in the executive branch and enabled by the legislature, has become superordinate. Therefore, we must ponder strategies of redress. A conservative might ask: how can we restore balance between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches so that our well-designed system of government can function properly?
Such a conservative—what we might call a “responsible conservative”—might dial up Philip Hamburger at Columbia Law School, who has argued for an aggressive legal strategy to set up Supreme Court decisions that will rule a great deal of the administrative state unconstitutional. That seems good. But note that so-called “principled conservatives” are sure to deride Hamburger’s agenda as “judicial activism” and “adopting the methods of the Left.” To my mind, this indicates that our problem rests with “principled conservatives,” not those entertaining new avenues of political action for the twenty-first century.
The second buttress of limited government is also in trouble. Only a person who has plucked out his eyes can fail to see that the moral culture of the United States has weakened significantly. Religious affiliation is down; family breakdown has accelerated. Pornography is widespread; marriage is increasingly rare. Drug addiction, underemployment, social isolation, children out of wedlock—there is always ruin in a nation, but we seems to have a great deal more these days.
A responsible conservative is committed to individual rights, to be sure. But he is not foolish enough to believe that the parchment promises of our Constitution can long endure in a society careening toward moral collapse. Benjamin Franklin issued a warning very relevant to our time: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Thus a responsible conservative is not complacent about the status quo. He ponders critics of liberalism like Patrick J. Deneen. He reads Hadley Arkes and sees that our judicial philosophy needs to draw on moral sources. He dips into arcane debates about Catholic integralism and participates in mainstream discussions of the need for a revived nationalism.
Benjamin Franklin issued a warning very relevant to our time: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
The “principled conservative” is sure to hector the responsible conservative for wanting to “legislate morality” and “impose” his conception of the common good. But the responsible conservative is wise to this charge. Every legislative act is informed by a vision of the common good. The justices who ruled school prayer unconstitutional had a definite view of the common good: the best society is one in which people are as free as possible from state-sponsored encouragement to be religious (or married, or a parent, or a patriot). The responsible conservative rejects this view. He knows that encouragement is not coercion. He recognizes that after a long season of libertarian-inflected cultural policy, America needs the opposite.
The responsible conservative does not aim to repeal the First Amendment. He cherishes our American traditions, which owe a great debt to Locke and other liberal thinkers. But he recognizes that our times call for a restoration of moral authority, not its neglect, and certainly not its further diminution. He supports tax-credit schemes that subsidize scholarship programs that help lower-income kids attend religious schools. He huddles with legal scholars to develop a plan for overturning the libertarian Supreme Court rulings that make it nearly impossible to regulate pornography and prohibit even the most anodyne ecumenical prayers in public schools. The same responsible conservative is open to creative suggestions about how to promote marriage and curtail divorce.
None of these efforts is motivated by a desire to transform American into a “collectivist” enterprise. Nor does the responsible conservative wish to discard our American traditions of personal freedom. To the contrary, he hopes to renew our culture of freedom, which cannot endure in a morally disordered society.
When considering the weal of America’s middle class, the responsible conservative cannot help but blanch. The last generation has seen catastrophic declines that imperil the future of limited government. He knows in his bones that if these declines are not reversed, cries for “socialism” and other tyrannies will gain strength.
The last decade has seen vigorous debates about why the American middle class has declined. Some blame high levels of immigration. Others point to post–Cold War globalization, which set the stage for American companies to shut down factories at home and open new ones in low-wage countries. Still others say that Reagan-era tax cuts encouraged a rapacious capitalism indifferent to the common good. And there are arguments that identify as the culprit technology and the way it has shifted rewards away from physical labor and toward “knowledge work.”
The responsible conservative knows that economists are untrustworthy sages. For every argument, there is a counter-argument. For every theory, there is a counter-theory. As a result, he seeks modest proposals. He entertains policies that direct our free-market economy toward middle-class prosperity. He considers proposals for rejiggering the safety net so that it encourages the virtues of self-government rather than dependency.
This might lead the responsible conservative to read Oren Cass, who argues that we must develop an industrial policy, shift funding away from higher education and toward vocational education, and offer wage subsidies to those at the bottom of the employment ladder. This makes “principled conservatives” nervous. Cass does not promote tax cuts as the cure-all—a heresy and rejection of Reagan-era conservatism! But the responsible conservative is not deterred. He honors the heroes of post-war conservatism, but knows that it is not 1980.
The responsible conservative affirms the law of supply and demand. He has a clear view of the role incentives and disincentives play in motivating economic choices. So he entertains proposals to raise tariffs on imported goods, knowing that this will stimulate investment in domestic production. He listens carefully as his more radical friends speculate about the need to implement a tax on Amazon and other large e-commerce companies so that Main Street shops can gain a competitive advantage, allowing them and other small and mid-sized businesses to thrive. For the same reason, he’s sympathetic to renewed anti-trust enforcement and the rejection of Robert Bork’s emphasis on consumer prices as the test for large combinations. The responsible conservative knows that concentrations of economic power pose great threats to a free society. And he may even entertain thoughts about revisiting the legislation in the 1990s that established today’s intellectual-property protections and liberalized financial regulation.
The mere mention of these ideas outrages the “principled conservative.” He derides them as “economic planning” and uses of “state power” that are no different, in principle, from progressive policies. The responsible conservative smiles. He knows that the construction of the global economic system, so favored by free-market advocates and “principled conservatives,” required a massive exercise of state power. It took many years, reams of regulations, and thousands of bureaucrats to design and implement institutions like the World Trade Organization, a textbook case of neoliberal economic planning
The extreme Left will be defeated if and only if conservatives gain state power and use it to defend freedom.
And the responsible conservative knows that every tax scheme since Hammurabi has been formulated with an eye toward who will pay and who will profit. Broadly understood, the Reagan years borrowed from the future in order to lower top marginal rates, so as to unshackle the creative energies of the most productive members of the Baby Boomer generation, who were in that decade coming into their prime. It was a good policy and bore much good fruit. In the same spirit—the spirit of any version of “traditional conservatism” that is not paralyzed by nostalgia or a victim of its own propaganda—the practical conservative aims to adjust tax policy toward the end of rebuilding America’s middle class, which means making prospects for median-educated, median-skilled Americans more lucrative.
Holmes fears for the future of America. “Who,” Holmes asks, “will stand up to the extreme Left who will surely use state power to come after your rights and liberties?” He seems to think that the only reliable guardians of freedom are those “philosophically” opposed to “collectivism.” Mark me down as skeptical.
The extreme Left will be defeated if and only if conservatives gain state power and use it to defend freedom. This defense must be concrete. And it must be informed by sober thought about how and why our country is now vulnerable to the revolutionary utopianism we once imagined buried with the Soviet Union.
I’m increasingly convinced that “traditional conservatism” bears responsibility for our parlous situation. By deriding notions such as the common good, it has promoted an anti-government outlook. During the Reagan era, this had good results, because there was a great deal of creative energy locked up by post-war economic controls and onerous tax policies. But over the longer term, such an outlook has done great harm. It conceded the field to the Left. As one wag put it, “conservatives hold office; liberals govern.”
The rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution limit (correctly) the aims and scope of governance. But they cannot inform and shape a conservative governing philosophy. Patrick J. Deneen, Yoram Hazony, Adrian Vermeule, Hadley Arkes, and others are searching for substantive foundations for conservative governance. We should applaud their efforts, even as we register our disagreements. For we are not going to renew the crucial supports for a free society—separation of powers, a vibrant moral culture, and a prosperous middle class—by reissuing The Road to Serfdom and funding seminars on the perils of collectivism. Those tasks are political, which means they will require responsible use of state power. It’s long past time for conservatives to govern.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 20
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