Editor’s note: Yesterday, we published our Sunday Long Read for March, in which Samuel Gregg insightfully analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary conservative critiques of free markets. Today, we present four brief responses to his essay from some of the leading conservative critics of pure free-market economics.
First, Patrick Brown urges conservatives not to allow the fear of unintended consequences to stop them from pursuing economic policies that support their core commitments. Josh Hammer agrees, arguing that nationalism in economics is actually more conservative than a commitment to capitalism for capitalism’s sake. Daniel McCarthy emphasizes the many successes of nationalism in trade and industrial policy, warning of the dire cultural costs of a dogmatic devotion to free trade. Finally, Benjamin Weingarten zeroes in on our country’s trade with China, highlighting the unique geopolitical threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
Overcoming the Fear of Unintended Consequences
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You return to your hometown for the first time since leaving for college and find that a couple of shops have closed. The next time, the old rec center has been converted into apartments. A few years later, the cineplex has become a megachurch. Revisiting the old stomping grounds still plucks the heartstrings, but the tune is unfamiliar. You’re back, but not at home.
Today, a similar feeling of unsettled recognition plagues many on the right. They look around and see the party that was their home suddenly full of populism, nationalism, and “big government conservatism.” “Is this really the same conservative movement I grew up in?” you can hear them wonder aloud.
In yesterday’s essay, Samuel Gregg offered a thoughtful interrogation of the generational divide recently spotlighted by Chris Buskirk in the New York Times. Gregg, ever a thoughtful proponent of free markets and a virtuous people, offers a sound self-examination of where classically liberal conservatives have failed to capture the imagination of younger successors. As he rightly suggests, citing Hayek’s “knowledge problem” in the face of aggressive Chinese competition on semiconductors or 5G cellular networks leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, Gregg rightly points out that critics of “market fundamentalism” are often better at pointing out the flaws in the current neoliberal order than coming up with solutions.
A prime example is the “two-income trap” hypothesis, made famous by Elizabeth Warren and adopted by conservatives such as Tucker Carlson, Oren Cass, and Helen Andrews. The story holds that rising economic pressures on families led mothers to enter the workforce, leaving their families more financially precarious. But the empirical data don’t back up that story. Most women weren’t forced into work by economic necessity, and their additional income doesn’t all go to higher rents and child-care costs. Social conservatives would like to blame those market forces, but much of the shift away from the male breadwinner model has been due to rising educational attainment and other cultural shifts. Similarly, some (though not all) of the long-term shift away from American manufacturing was inevitable due to forces outside policymakers’ direct control.
But the “two-income trap” story, like the “trade deals killed American manufacturing” story, feels true because it taps a strain of popular discontent. Many moms who would prefer to stay home when their kids are young may find themselves nudged into work not just through cultural expectations but also in public policy, from the work-first logic of welfare reform to marriage penalties in the tax code to reimbursing paid child care but not parental or relative care. Policies like wage subsidies or a near-universal child allowance could allow more families to achieve their preferences. Likewise, a stronger US dollar (and more enforcement of laws against unfair trade practices) could boost the competitiveness of American exports.
The fear of unintended consequences that Gregg stresses is not wrong, but too much timidity can lead to inaction. Take his argument that economic policy has a limited role to play in addressing social and cultural problems. “Substance addiction cannot be addressed by the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates,” Gregg writes. On an individual level, that’s clearly true. On the other hand, excessively tight monetary policy can constrict the lines of credit available to small businesses and entrepreneurs, meaning that fewer economic opportunities beckon to young men on the margin between participating in the labor force and not. Allowing the threat of higher inflation down the line to keep us from pursuing tight labor markets today through low interest rates would be a sin of omission.
Just as the old hometown will lapse into disrepair without an economic rationale for its existence, so too does the conservative movement need to have a reason for being in order to offer a compelling alternative to statist progressivism. Conservatives should remain ever cautious of government overreach and stress the need for personal virtue, but that cannot be the extent of our agenda. Even the most avowedly value-neutral state rewards or penalizes behavior though its tax, spending, and trade policies. Recognizing that, a conservative economic agenda should not be afraid to shift policy on the margins toward our goal of strong families and healthy communities.
Irving Kristol, Markets, and the New Right
In 1978, Irving Kristol published Two Cheers for Capitalism. The book expressed a sentiment commonly held by the Founders, among them Alexander Hamilton: Markets provide an abundant wellspring of efficiency and prosperity and ought to be applauded, but at times they require the state’s thumb on the scale to achieve justice, human flourishing, and the common good.
Somewhere along the way, the Cold War-era “conservative movement” began lionizing the market not as an instrument in service of higher ends, but as an intrinsic end unto itself. Samuel Gregg’s readers might come away thinking this is our natural Anglo-American inheritance, but such revisionism belies historical reality. As David Brog wrote at American Affairs last year, the paradigmatic conservative “[Edmund] Burke was a British nationalist who was far more interested in the wealth of his nation than in the Wealth of Nations.”
In fact, a proper orientation of our economic order is even more basic than that. As Michael Lind has noted, also at American Affairs, “The family is the oldest economic institution, as the very term ‘economics’—from the Greek word for household management—suggests.” The market, as wonderful as it so often is, is thus more accurately understood as subservient to multiple more indispensable institutions, chief among them family and nation-state. Market forces must be construed and channeled in the context of a rejuvenated political and legal understanding that prioritizes institutional and communitarian health in the service of a common good solely attainable by nation-state, communities, and families flourishing in harmonious tandem.
The time is ripe for a movement emphasizing order and consolidation over the siren song of ever greater “freedom.” In the economic sphere, the inherent dignity of labor for our fellow countrymen should be prioritized over GDP-maximizing trade/labor efficiency—let alone “efficiency” in service of America’s foremost geopolitical adversary, Communist China. China’s harrowing hoarding of personal protective equipment at the COVID-19 pandemic’s outset should wake up conservatives to support at least some degree of autarkic self-sufficiency. It is common sense that Americans should make stuff. And it is profoundly conservative to follow common sense and pragmatism over abstract, rationalist theory.
Prudential policymakers can, and will, disagree on the specifics. But while some of Gregg’s critiques of economic “tinkering” are sound, some ring hollow. There are many reasons to support targeted industrial policy measures, for example, notwithstanding Gregg’s statistics pertaining to President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. And his glib dismissal of direct economic support as a pro-family salve is contradicted by compelling recent data: just last month, an American Compass survey found that fiscal assistance could meaningfully help struggling families better realize their parenting desires.
Well before he was a United States senator, Josh Hawley wrote in a National Affairs essay: “Aristotle . . . argued that justice is the purpose of political community. Though today we often think of justice only in reference to crime and punishment, Aristotle understood that there is far more to justice than that: He contended that justice means arranging society in the right way, in accord with how humans are made and meant to live.” Human beings are not meant to live as atomized Ayn Randian widgets. A citizenry only flourishes within a proper conceptual framework of mutually interdependent rights and duties.
Free Market Dogmatism Has Steep Cultural Costs
Sam Gregg and I have debated many particulars of his argument before. Suffice to say I see Japan as a success story, not a failure: after the devastation of World War II, Japanese ingenuity, aided by national industrial policy, built what is still today the world’s third largest economy. China, which surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy, has also favored its own industries all along. In fact, every one of the greatest national economies of the past 250 years—the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Britain—rose to greatness through the cultivation of domestic industry.
Gregg notes that US industrial output has continued to grow, but so has the world’s population and economy. The key question is not whether a sector can grow when everything around it is growing, but how its growth compares to other developments in the domestic and international economy.
As for the impact of technology on the industrial workforce, the facts here lend themselves to the opposite of the free-trade absolutist’s conclusions. If technological change exerts a downward pressure on employment, why would you adopt policies that exacerbate the loss of jobs, rather than mitigating the losses with policies that support our workers?
Conservatives are not against change, including technological change. But we prefer change to come on gradually, to allow for adjustment. Liberal trade policy undercuts those workers who are not already facing elimination through technology. This is perverse.
That trade and industrial policy has a record of success does not, of course, mean that every attempt at pursuing such a policy is going to succeed. But economic nationalism is not about the dogmatic application of a single practice, the way that free trade is.
And continuing the free-trade regime of the last twenty years is truly madness: it means doing the same thing as before and expecting different results. Lest there be any doubt: the results have been a loss of industrial jobs, the devastation of many communities, an attendant epidemic of opioid abuse and plunge in life expectancy, and the empowerment of America’s most dangerous rival on the world stage. All that is a high price to pay for supposedly cheap consumer products.
This is the crux of the matter: economic policies have a price that is not simply measured in dollars. The economy does not exist hermetically sealed off from our culture, our neighborhoods, and our families, and the good of all these things must be taken into account when deciding on questions of trade, industry, and related matters.
Even a policy whose merits in terms of economic efficiency might be unquestionable would not be a good policy if it caused grievous harm by other criteria. And who is the judge of such harm? We are: citizens, statesmen, and all who possess moral reason.
I share many of Sam Gregg’s reservations about political interventions in the economy, but the economy also intervenes in our politics and society. For that reason, a protective stance toward our families, neighborhoods, and nation is warranted, just as economic freedom is.
On China, National Interest Must Trump Perceived Economic Interest
The fundamental question to consider when it comes to trade is this: Does it serve the national interest, or merely our economic interest?
Under the best of conditions, trade satisfies both ends. It enables Americans to pursue purposeful work, and provide for our families, while contributing to social cohesion and national strength. But what about when the national interest and economic interest conflict?
America’s trade with China clearly presents such a case. It demands that we subordinate the pecuniary to the patriotic.
In his thoughtful essay, Sam Gregg rightly notes that China is authoritarian, challenges America in the Asia-Pacific, and violates the rules of international commerce. He rightly recognizes that the “economic liberalization begets political liberalization” argument failed. He concludes, however, that economic nationalist policies are an improper antidote. In so doing, he elides or downplays several critical points of emphasis pertaining to the operative question—a question it might have proved fruitful for him to more directly address.
First, Gregg minimizes China’s ambitions, which must inform all of our interactions with it. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) suggests in word and deed that it does not merely wish to challenge America in the Indo-Pacific, but to supplant it as the dominant world power. If trade with China contributes to that end, we ought to question its value.
Second, he skates over the fact that trade with China has indeed put it on this hegemonic trajectory. China could not have achieved such staggering economic growth—even adjusting for CCP book-cooking—without America’s effort to integrate it into the world trade and financial architecture. Economic growth has underpinned its expanding power in every strategically significant realm. This has manifestly not been in our national interest.
Third, he only implicitly acknowledges that our trade with China has been neither free, fair, nor reciprocal. The proof is in the pudding of China’s pilfering of trillions of dollars in intellectual property, exploitation of capital markets, and conditioning of commerce on technology transfers.
Fourth, Gregg ignores the worst consequences of US-China trade, including our reliance on China for essential products and critical links in supply chains; the fact that the global telecommunications infrastructure will largely be built and controlled by our greatest adversary; China’s commerce-enabled influence efforts, sabotage, and espionage; and the economic wreckage and societal chaos incurred due to the outsourcing of jobs to China—compounded by its flooding of suffering communities with fentanyl.
Given the foregoing—given the stakes—we must at least strongly consider policies aimed at reshoring jobs, rebuilding domestic production capacity in critical industries, developing a national industrial policy, and using all the sticks at our disposal—including tariffs—for leverage in combating China. Going forward, we must prudently balance economic efficiency, cultural cohesion, and vitality in trade.
One can acknowledge the waste, fraud, and corruption inherent to projects involving state planning, that a tariff is a tax, and that protectionist policies divert resources from better uses while also acknowledging that grave threats sometimes compel uneconomic responses.
In the spirit of compromise, I would propose the following: Unshackle our economy, and decouple from China.