Conservatism is in the midst of profound change.
At least what passes for conservative intellectualism and its application to public policy is in the midst of change.
As a man who embraced most of Reagan-era conservatism, I watch this with considerable interest and worry. It is early enough to think through some of the developing parts and what they mean.
There’s more to the National Conservatism movement, as they call themselves, than economic policy. Still, I should provide some definitions of conservatism as well as a critical review of the influence of the many political ideas that form this economic policy.
Most of the intellectual roots of conservatism in the United States were derived from enlightenment ideals. These can be expressed in just a few principles; each individual has value and dignity, human dignity is ensured by individual rights bestowed by our creator and government exists to protect individual rights.
Many readers will nod and ask, “Aren’t these universal values that are necessary for human flourishing?” to which conservatives say, “Yes, of course.” In fact, these ideas are so universal that they are often termed “classical liberal” values, reflecting the break with monarchy nearly two and a half centuries ago.
In the hands of conservative, or ‘classical liberal’ thinkers, these ideas took the form of respect for limited government. For an economy, that meant limited regulation, less government control of commerce, lower taxation, free trade and less restrictive immigration. For half a century this formed the intellectual basis of economic policy, in which the United States was enormously prosperous. Sure, it was applied imperfectly, but the ideals themselves loomed large.
Outside of economic policy, what were called conservatives had many different beliefs. Within the same big tent gathered the cultural conservatives, the national defense hawks (as I was), the country club conservatives and the libertarians. These groups could disagree on many things, but the enlightenment ideas applied to the economy acted to bind together their otherwise diverse interests. The affirmative ideals of personal liberty, individual dignity and limited government forged a movement that held together for a half-century. It has now splintered.
The new National Conservatism movement has a very different cement with which to tie differing economic and cultural interests into a political movement. It is not an affirmative movement of rights and ideas, but an opposition to apparitions of the cultural left. Many Americans object to the excesses of the cultural left, your columnist among them, but oppositional political movements have a dismal track record.
The eclectic signatories to a recent “Statement of Principles” makes that clear. They include people with serious intellectual credentials like Yoram Hazony and Victor David Hanson. But, they also include internet trolls Julie Kelly and Charlie Kirk, the Wile E. Coyote of grown-up reasoning. Topping the page is Michael Anton of Hillsdale College, who just authored a direct call for political violence from the right. His words are more fervently anti-American than anything the lefty wackos on any campus produced in the weeks after 9/11. This curious group signed onto a 10-point plan that’s worth critiquing.
Three of their proposals are for national independence in international affairs and a focus on the nation-state and international alliances. At first blush, little here is objectionable, indeed they are largely indistinguishable from the policies of every American president from FDR to Obama. Still, the National Conservatives chase ghosts of globalism and an ill-defined, shadowy globalist. And yes, it is safe to read that as carefully hidden code.
A major departure from bipartisan American policy is the weird statement that where “lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.” Can this really be a call for the federal government to determine immorality in a state and respond with force? Yes, it is, which should cause every American to cringe.
Their fourth principle is about public religion and claims that “…where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision.” I am a Christian who argued in previous columns that much of enlightenment thought is derived from the moral vision of Christianity. However, this statement is a clear rejection of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution. Words matter, and a political movement that rejects the fundamentals of our Constitution is, by definition, anti-American. It is also deeply un-Christian.
Much of the rest of the manifesto is economic. Free enterprise, which held a central place in Reagan-era conservatism, is heralded as an idea but rejected in practice. National Conservatism clearly states that trade cannot be free; rather, it must be controlled to meet a laundry list of concerns such as preventing the importation of pornography (really?) and ‘addictive substances.’ They champion much higher public research spending for military purposes, yet complain that universities are now so partisan and globalist that they are undeserving of funding. Do they fear a woke physics professor might demand gender-neutral naming for a new missile system?
The National Conservative principles argue for better immigrant assimilation, despite the heavily documented fact that current U.S. immigrants are today the most assimilative in history. Their statement on race is a rare bright point in its pluralist intentions. That is not enough to remove the bitter taste that comes from reading the rest of the creed, nor does it remove doubt from the rest of the project.
The National Conservative statement of principles marks a paradigmatic departure from our founding philosophies. The most nakedly authoritarian piece complains about the disintegration of American families, and links it to “unconstrained individualism … encouraging ever more radical forms of sexual license and experimentation.” Their political platform makes clear the movement must “… foster stable family and congregational life and child-raising are priorities of the highest order.”
A political focus on fostering ‘congregational life and child-raising’ is incompatible with our Constitution. A free people choose their own congregations and family, and they must demand that government stay at a respectful distance from both.
To be certain, there is much to dislike in American progressivism. At its fringes harbor the vilest of anti-Semites, racialists, and authoritarians who might even appreciate the totalitarian aspirations of National Conservatism. Yes, the American Left would benefit from vigorous ideological hygiene. However, what now stands as the intellectual centerpiece of National Conservatism is an equally anti-American declaration. It is bad economics, thinly veiled totalitarianism and, at its core, a rejection of the sanctity of human dignity and individual value. It is a dumpster fire of failed ideas masquerading as a political platform.
Michael J. Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].