Writing about the Republican National Convention in August, New York Times columnist David Brooks fretted that the Republican Party has been captured by a “hyperindividualistic mentality,” and he commended Condoleezza Rice’s celebration of “larger national goals—the long national struggle to extend benefits and to mobilize all human potential.”

Last month Brooks reinforced this claim by exploiting an old debate in American conservatism between what he calls economic conservatives and traditionalist conservatives. Economic conservatives, according to Brooks, “spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty.” As a result, “They upheld freedom as their highest political value.”

Traditional conservatives, on the other hand, “didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”

But the economic conservatives have captured the Republican Party, Brooks asserts, and have made “shrinking government” its “organizing conservative principle.” “Since they no longer speak in the language of social order,” he writes, “Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country.”

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Judging by recent polls, the Romney campaign was certainly failing to communicate conservative principles attractively and persuasively to many people, at least before the first debate with President Obama last week. But Brooks’s theory of an economic hyperindividualist coup of the GOP is based on a superficial view of conservatism, and does more to reinforce leftist stereotypes than to show the Republican Party a way forward.

In the first place, Brooks completely ignores the current context of Republican anti-government rhetoric. He denounces Republican “hyperindividualism,” but pays no attention to the Democratic alternative, “subsidized hyperindividualism.” It is not enough that the Sandra Flukes of America have access through the market to cheap contraception and abortion on-demand. Other Americans must be compelled against their consciences to pay for these services. It is not enough for one of the oldest religious charity organizations in the United States to provide adoption services for the neediest children; it must place children with same-sex couples or lose its license. It is not enough for a religious charity to assist almost 3,000 victims of sex-trafficking; it must also promote abortion, or lose its funding.

One would hardly call this a “harmonious nestling” of the associations of civil society beneath government. Not many conservatives deny that government should offer a “subtle hand,” as Brooks puts it, where needed. But most conservatives know the difference between a “subtle hand” and a sledgehammer. Commerce does not always have pretty results, but these pale in comparison to the Kulturkampf that the Democratic Party has been waging against religious institutions in America.

It is no accident that the Obama administration has also overseen the largest expansion of the administrative welfare state since the New Deal. The leadership of the Democratic Party is animated by a progressive ideology that pits centralized government power and radical individualism against the primary social institutions of civil society: families, churches, charitable organizations, and businesses.

According to the narrative of that ideology, the “private sector” necessarily stands for individualism, private interests, and egoism, whereas “government” stands for community, public interests, and morality. And in that morality, only good intentions count. It hardly matters if lower taxes on businesses increase employment for the poor, or if private schools teach children better than public schools, or if divorce inflicts measurable harm on individuals and society. Against this kind of a moral backdrop, what chance does a successful “businessman” have against a “community organizer”?

Brooks himself reinforces the progressive narrative when he accuses those who defend economic freedom of “hyperindividualism,” while he calls on Republicans to embrace “larger national [i.e. government] goals.” Brooks implies that concern for “economic liberty” means “individualism,” while concern for “community” means “government.” He overlooks the fact that participation in the plural communities of civil society requires every bit as much commitment, sacrifice, care for others, and public spirit as participation in politics. Nor does he ever acknowledge the many ways in which the government “community,” rather than assisting the plural communities of civil society, often crowds them out and harms them.

At the same time, Brooks completely overlooks the fact that Republican leaders are not proposing to dismantle the existing welfare state, but to preserve and improve it by making it sustainable. As he must know, it is very unlikely (thankfully) that the Republican Party leadership has been taken over by libertarians, who would oppose the Ryan budget as much as the Left, though for very different reasons.

If one wants an intelligible framework that best reflects the Republican Party’s current public policy, the place to look is neither libertarianism nor traditionalism, but classical liberalism. This is a strain of conservatism that Brooks never mentions because it complicates the simplified story he wants to tell. Classical liberalism, with some important additions from the natural-law and natural-rights traditions, is in fact the underlying public philosophy of the American founders and the ground of its constitutional order. These, and not Brooks’s amorphous “great national projects” and “larger national visions,” are what Abraham Lincoln strove to preserve, and what American conservatism exists to conserve.

The leading intellectuals of classical liberalism include Edmund Burke (a Whig), Adam Smith (the founder of “classical economics”), Alexis de Tocqueville (the most prescient critic of American democracy), and F. A. Hayek, who brought all of the earlier thinkers to bear on the totalitarian threats of the twentieth century. The Romney campaign and Republican leaders would do well to articulate their objections to the Obama entitlement state in a more classically liberal way.

Classical liberals affirm nearly all of the principles that underlie Catholic social teaching: solidarity, subsidiarity, and duties of society to ensure that the poor are cared for. They were also the earliest defenders of the free market. But their case did not rest on hyperindividualism, social Darwinism, or meritocratic views of desert. To the contrary, it rested on the fact that human beings are by nature dependent social animals that require mutual assistance for their development and flourishing. Commercial exchanges are not fundamentally exploitative, classical liberals argued; they are cooperative ventures that ordinarily make all parties better off.

For classical liberals there is no such thing as a separate and independent “economic motive.” Economic choices just are the means by which human beings pursue higher, non-economic goods. For this reason, control of the economy must also entail control of the other choices human beings make in pursuing goods. Classical liberals would not have been surprised by the contraception mandate. Economic control is inseparable from social control.

Classical liberals showed how the impulse for central economic planning grows out of a false rationalism that F. A. Hayek called “constructivism.” Constructivism assumes that all human practices and institutions, because they are in some sense made by human beings, can therefore be remade or improved by a priori, top-down direction and control.

But classical liberals pointed out how spontaneously grown institutions and practices are forms of knowledge that could never be achieved in the constructivist way. Language itself is a paradigmatic instance of such a spontaneously grown practice, and is indeed the precondition for all other forms of human cooperation. The price system in a free market is another example of spontaneous order: Only it can coordinate the widely dispersed circumstantial knowledge of time and place upon which the best use of resources depends, Hayek argued. Excepting exceptional cases, that coordination works to the advantage of every human being—the poor as well as the rich.

As John Tomasi points out in his excellent recent book Free Market Fairness, classical liberals, like the American Founders (and like most conservative Republicans) were not economic-liberty absolutists. They understood that commerce alone is not a sufficient means of achieving the common good, and that some forms of commerce are a threat to the common good. Therefore they advocated a limited though necessary role for political authority in protecting the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the public, and in supporting public goods (roads, schools, care for the poor, and so on) that could not or would not adequately be provided by the market.

This does not mean they necessarily would have supported corporate capitalism, which involves a particular legal structuring of economic relations and incentives that presents its own problems for the common good. (See, for example, Robert Miller’s recent piece for Public Discourse). Nor does it mean they would have celebrated consumerism. And as for crony capitalism and corporate welfare, these are things that every conservative should oppose. But any critique of commerce that does not include a full and fair acknowledgment of the goods it provides, and the real social costs of the economic restrictions of the Obama entitlement state, merely feeds dangerous utopian urges without moving us any closer to a just social order.

Brooks is correct that “the GOP has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition,” but it is not the ammunition that Brooks has in mind. Republicans should not downplay economic liberty or back off warning against the encroaching statism of the Democratic Party. No, they must do a better job of showing how economic liberty is necessary for achieving the real, non-economic goods of individuals and associations in civil society. It is not the collectivist “we” conspicuously on display at the Democratic National Convention, but the many “we’s” of civil society, which are the true ground of a just, and good, society.