Editor’s Note: This editorial was published in the March/April issue of the magazine.
Bernie Sanders. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Tucker Carlson. If one of those names on a list of examples of ascendant socialism strikes you as out of place, you may have missed weeks of debate on the Right over a reasonable comment made by the popular Fox News host.
“Market capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster,” Carlson said. “Any economic system that weakens and destroys families isn’t worth having.” Does this observation make Tucker a socialist? Hardly. As is often the case, TAC founding editor Patrick J. Buchanan was more than a decade ahead of the curve.
“To me, the country comes before the economy; and the economy exists for the people,” Buchanan said in a 1998 speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. “I believe in free markets, but I do not worship them. In the proper hierarchy of things, it is the market that must be harnessed to work for man—and not the other way around.”
In practice, conservatives often have worshiped free markets. As John Zmirak argued in these pages in 2003, the need to come up with a universal ideology that could compete with Marxism led some Cold War conservatives to lose the plot. The early neoconservatives and their forebears, he writes, “brought with them vast talents, literary learning, and serious moral concern for universal issues of human rights. But they also carried a strong tendency towards pure abstraction, towards viewing national questions purely in ideological terms.”
The end result was they often “defended America bravely during the Cold War—but they did so not as our homeland, as the particular place where a people and their treasured institutions took root, but rather as the (almost accidental) spot where certain ideas had taken hold.”
Similarly, the “fusionist” conception of conservatism propounded by National Review senior editor Frank Meyer sought to use libertarian means to achieve traditionalist ends. Some conservatives have misconstrued that as a decree that libertarian means will necessarily achieve traditionalist ends.
We know that to not be the case. Free markets can be corrosive of other values or priorities that are important to authentic conservatives: family, faith, and community. We see major corporations promoting social and cultural liberalism, social media monopolies—all privately owned—de-platforming conservatives and suppressing their ideas, big business and big government working hand in hand against religion and tradition.
“In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, countless children are growing up with parents in jail, incapacitated, or underground,” writes J.D. Vance in Meyer’s publication. “Yes, they live in a country with a higher GDP than a generation ago, and they’re undoubtedly able to buy cheaper consumer goods, but to paraphrase Reagan: Are they better off than they were 20 years ago?”
Among conservatives, there has been a course correction. Since the election of Donald Trump, a Republican president who divides conservatives, more people on the Right speak of the United States as a homeland rather than a mere abstraction. The global economy and mass immigration are being subjected to cost-benefit analysis, as champions of the marketplace should have it. There is more of a willingness to contest the idea that what’s good for General Motors is good for conservatives—or America.
Maybe conservatives will overcorrect, putting too much faith in government, even at the local level, at the expense of free markets. But fusionists once understood that liberty and virtue, individualism and tradition, are to some extent in tension. Efforts to manage that balance are necessary but will not always produce a perfect synthesis, a straight line from low marginal tax rates to intact families.
The periodic electoral successes conservatives have enjoyed since the 1980s have caused us to lose sight of an important question: what is it that we are trying to conserve? The search for answers is finally ready for primetime.