Free-Market Supporters Won’t Go Away Just Because Conservatives Don’t Want Us

One of the great arguments within the conservative movement revolves around how much it has changed since Donald Trump became a presidential candidate four years ago. This is the year we are finally beginning to see a sorting out – and for those of us who define ourselves as economic conservatives, the music has stopped without a chair.

It began with the heated reaction to Congressman Justin Amash, a founder of the House Freedom Caucus and one of the most articulate proponents of limited and frugal government (indeed, I’ve had my own disagreements with him on foreign policy). Amash lost nearly all of his friends in the conservative movement, to say nothing of the Republican Party, by his decision to support impeachment of President Trump based upon the information in the Mueller report. Aaron Pomerantz provides the details and the inconsistencies in the Bulwark.

The House Freedom Caucus seemed more than able to rally and condemn Amash, but were strangely absent from the conversation about the budget, allowing a series of financial decisions that contradict the very principles of their founding. And not for the first time.  House Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney, for example, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 that the government couldn’t afford new deficits, and yet completely switched positions two years later when he’d become Trump’s budget director. It seems that “the party line” has become more important than the fundamental principles that are meant to underlie the party itself.

At first, this may have seemed to be a simple case of party tribalism over principle, which is hardly new or unique to Trump. That changed dramatically when Sohrab Amhari decided to redefine conservativism in First Things. Ostensibly an attempt to criticize the political modus operandi of National Review‘s David French, Amhari took the opportunity to redefine conservatism itself. Robert Tracinski has the details in the Bulwark.

In the first sentence of his missive against supposed “David French-ism”—is there anything more Trumpian that reducing big ideological questions to a personal grudge?—Ahmari links to a manifesto published in First Things last March which denounced the “Dead Consensus” of the right.

The First Things manifesto begins with sneering references to “individual autonomy” but then moves on to denouncing “the cult of competitiveness,” “free trade,” “economic libertarianism,” “the demands of capital,” “investors and ‘job creators’ “—note the gratuitous scare quotes—and “warmed-over Reaganism.”

I predicted a few days ago that we were only weeks away from conservatives trashing Ronald Reagan in order to bolster Trump. It turns out I was behind the curve. It was already happening.

The signatories of that manifesto don’t just want to eject the free-marketers. They want to welcome in the nationalists: “We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world.” They talk about “communal solidarity” and “the human need for a common life.” And who are the bad guys? Here we get a lot of familiar alt-light rhetoric about supposed “jet-setters,” “citizens of the world” who can “go anywhere” and “work anywhere” in a “borderless world.” I’m surprised they didn’t just go straight to “rootless cosmopolitans.”

In short, Amhari is doing more than just providing intellectual cover for obsequious to Trump (for that, seek out Henry Olsen’s recent Op-ed in the Washington Post, if you must). He’s using Trump to redefine conservatism as a new collectivist enterprise replacing freedom with blind faith and replacing persuasion with coercion.

For those of us who appreciate economic freedom – or even political freedom – there is no place, period.

Quite a few on the right have provided the equivalent of the Luke Skywalker response to Amhari (“This is not going to go the way you think”), but they’ve left out one crucial component: what economic conservatives will do once we’re read out of the conservative movement and out of the Republican Party.

People don’t just go away; they react. Thus it will be with economic conservatives, too. To be sure, some will stay where they are and fight an increasingly desperate rear-guard action within the movement and within the GOP. Many more will simply leave both and come to terms with the dizzying reality that they – we – are the new political center.

More than a few, however, will follow me into the Democratic Party on the assumption that partial collectivism – for all its many faults – remains superior to the full-throttle theocracy that Amhari and those like him will redefine as “conservatism.” That’s going to come as a slow-motion shock – and not just to Republicans or to conservatives (however they are defined). Democrats will start to find more robust internal arguments about economic issues.

One can already see it happening today. Contrary to the confused nostalgia of several presidential candidates, the overwhelming majority of Democrats now support free-trade agreements, while barely a third consider reducing trade deficits to be a priority (Pew Research). Democrats in 2019 are already more desirous of their party moving rightward than in 2016 (Pew Research). Here in Virginia, the last Governor to propose a tax increase was…Republican Bob McDonnell in 2013. Neither of his two Democratic successors followed suit (one of them – Terry McAuliffe – even proposed a corporate income tax reduction during his term in office). The leading Democrat for the presidential nomination – by far, albeit for now – was Vice President during the formation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Even those who support Universal Basic Income are now doing so not merely as a redistribution policy, but also as a way to dismantle the welfare state apparatus and end government regulation of the poor.

To be fair, the Democratic nominee (whoever he or she is) will almost certainly attempt to run to the president’s left on many economic issues, but not on all of them. In time, especially if the Republicans are as dismissive of us as First Things has become, economic conservatives will continue to move the Democrats toward freer markets and exchanges. That will change both parties, to say nothing of the body politics as a whole, in ways that are not anticipated…

…and shouldn’t be feared.