Oren Cass, formerly a domestic-policy adviser to the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has launched a new organization, American Compass. Cass told the Washington Post that its goal is “to think about what the post-Trump right-of-center is going to be.” This debate is ongoing; Cass’s contributions to it will be familiar to readers of National Review.
Yet some of Cass’s immediate claims are worth questioning. Cass bemoans a purported domination of conservatism and the Republican Party by a “market fundamentalism — in many cases, held entirely in good faith; in some cases, more as a matter of political convenience.” He also accuses conservatives of “having for decades outsourced their economic thinking to libertarians” such that libertarianism is now part of the “prevailing orthodoxy” (along with a progressive economics that is, he says, its mirror image).
The notion that libertarians have largely controlled the Right probably comes as a surprise to libertarians, who have watched helplessly over the past few decades as government has grown, debt and deficits have expanded, and the Federal Register accrues more pages (even as one of the consistent priorities of what Cass calls the inchoate “earthquake” of the Trump administration has been a concerted effort to fight this last trend).
“Market fundamentalism,” then, is a curious choice of villain. Few could survey the actual policy achievements of elected Republicans over the past few decades and claim they reflect that wholesale. Republicans during George W. Bush’s presidency may have cut taxes, but they also increased spending (as have Trump-era Republicans), added a new federal agency, expanded an existing federal entitlement, and increased federal involvement in education. Bush himself proclaimed that “we have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move,” imposed unilateral tariffs (as President Trump has done), and spearheaded the TARP bailout of the financial industry, sacrificing “free-market principles to save the free-market system,” in his words.
President George H. W. Bush famously raised taxes and was never fully on board with what he had called President Reagan’s “voodoo economics.” The degree to which Reagan himself was on board with what became known as “Reaganomics” is the subject of some debate, largely due to his utility as a totem for both sides of this argument. But he did intervene in the economy specifically in behalf of Harley-Davidson. And libertarian economics had very little sway in the actual policy of the Republican Party before Reagan. If Cass’s dispute is instead with conservative rhetoric irrespective of its purported practitioners’ actions, then he ought to make that clear. (Few would contest that many elected Republicans have been hypocrites in this regard.)
Some of the participants on Cass’s side of this argument, which is ongoing, sometimes act as though the very idea of government involvement in the economy were both brand new and some incredible panacea for our ills. The truth, toward which Cass gestures when he writes that he seeks to “reassert ideas like these [that he proposes] for a conservative coalition that once understood them intuitively,” is that skepticism of the free market has a long history within the conservative tradition. Before “neoconservative” became a dirty word, neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol, were offering Two Cheers for Capitalism. As far back as 1957, National Review itself dissented from the “market fundamentalism” of Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, via Whittaker Chambers’s famous review. Just a decade ago, there were the “reformocons,” who sounded a lot like Cass and company do now in arguing for modest federal support for families and middle-income earners. When these groups made arguments in public, John Galt did not take over the transmission, nor did some Cato Institute grandee keep them from making their points. What Cass seeks to reassert never really left, even if its perceived relative strength has waxed and waned.
This may all seem like angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff. Indeed, much of this debate has the character of a think-tank panel that has spilled out into the real world (Cass’s specific chosen antagonist in his National Review article is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation). But it is easier to act as though we simply haven’t tried certain things instead of admitting that we have tried some, and that sometimes they do work, but sometimes they don’t. Cass would have a better case that our existing government policy has been inadequate than that we do not have one at all. And why has it been inadequate? Libertarian-leaning economists have had plenty to say about that: in public choice (Buchanan), the distribution of economic information (Hayek), monetary theory (Friedman), and more.
I do not invoke the celebrated insights of some libertarians merely to reject the very idea that the government has a place in the modern economy. I happen to agree with the argument Cass makes in his book The Once and Future Worker that it is foolish to devote immense federal resources to promoting higher education while leaving all other post-high-school paths to a hodgepodge of mostly state-based and private programs. Yet federal economic intervention is hardly the herald of something entirely new, either in the economy as a whole or on the right. A compass can help you find your way, but it’s even more useful if you know where you already are.