Politics & Policy

How the Right Is Dividing over the Nature of Power

(James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)
Some conservatives believe that restraining government coercion doesn’t mean much if liberalism continues to advance in the culture.

The ongoing argument on the American right between classical liberals on the one hand and nationalists on the other is, at its most intellectually respectable, an argument about the nature of power.

Classical liberals of the Goldwater/Reagan school have always believed that a crucial qualitative difference exists between state power and commercial power. When divested of all euphemisms, they argue, government is nothing other than violence, and the nation-state is nothing other than a geographic monopoly on violence held by one group of people (civil magistrates) over all others in a given jurisdiction. These conservatarians are keen to remind us that every law passed by a government is executed and enforced by men with guns, and that every tax they levy is collected in the same way, with compliance ensured by the threat of force. Persistent refusal on the part of the individual to adhere to any of the government’s edicts results in the expropriation of his property, his imprisonment in a cage, or, in extreme cases, his death. To their statist opponents, conservatarians point out that, with respect to its basic modus operandi, government has a lot in common with organized-crime syndicates, a similarity that scholars such as Diego Gambetta have explored in the context of the Sicilian Mafia. Milton Friedman spoke for the libertarian school of thought when he wrote that “political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority.”

Commercial power, these libertarians argue, is fundamentally different. Capital is persuasive rather than coercive, and businesses cannot impose their will violently on either consumers or employees without co-opting the state power described above. What’s more, the success or failure of any given company lies in the hands of the consumer, who is free to take his business elsewhere and needn’t fear any threat of violence from a service provider. The individual, rather than the collective, is ascendant in the market. For conservatives of the old Reaganite school, the awful and violent power of the state is therefore to be called upon only to make this society of persuasion and reciprocal bounty economically possible by protecting property rights. George Washington articulated the animating impulse of this modest vision of government in 1797 when he noted that, “like fire,” government is “a dangerous servant — and a fearful master.” State power is coercive, intractable, and insulated from economic realities, and not, therefore, to be trusted. Market power is benign, nonviolent, and self-correcting, and to be fostered enthusiastically. This was the old fusionist view of power: The violent power of the state had to be tamed and curtailed to make room for the persuasive power of the market and of civil society, or, as Friedman wrote more plainly, “government should be a referee, not an active player.” (Fusionism, for those unfamiliar with the term, was the intellectual and political coalition that formed on the American right during the 20th century, uniting “conservatives, libertarians, and other groups on the right in hostility to communism,” in the words of Alvin Felzenberg.)

The faction of the old fusionist coalition that cared most about the power of civil society (which is to say, churches, social clubs, and other nonprofit voluntaristic associations) was the social-conservative constituency. Alongside libertarians and anti-communists, social conservatives were the third leg of the famous three-legged electoral stool that formed the basis of the conservative counterrevolution of the 1980s. But after five neoconservative or fusionist Republican presidential terms had passed between 1980 and 2016, social conservatives began to feel as if their leg of the stool had been sanded down to a stub, with Republican politics being propped up by business interests motivated more by libertarian economics than by culture warring. As they saw it, the Reagan revolution had failed to arrest the exponential liberalizing of American culture that had been set loose in the land during the 1960s. Contemplating a legal-abortion regime that had remained unchanged since the Roe v. Wade ruling, the legalization of gay marriage and its rapid assimilation into bourgeois culture, the spread of transgender ideology, and the shameless exhibitions of vice that saturate entertainment media, many social conservatives began during the middle of the last decade to consider the possibility that the Reagan-era bargain they’d made with the libertarians had left them empty-handed.

This group of newly disillusioned social conservatives began to turn on libertarian politics and economics at astonishing speed. Not only was market power criticized for its ineffectiveness at checking the spread of social liberalism, it was condemned as co-conspiring and collaborating with the onward march of the cultural Left. More and more conservative thinkers began thinking of, and writing about, social and economic liberalism as two sides of the same coin, both aiming to emancipate the individual from the traditional ties that once bound one person to another.

Prominent among this group is J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, who appears to be contemplating a bid for one of Ohio’s Senate seats. In a keynote speech delivered late last month at the Claremont Institute’s “What to do about Woke Capital?” conference, Vance criticized the American Right’s historically supply-side, hands-off approach to capital allocation, which has preferred, wherever possible, to leave cash in the hands of private investors:

Now if a middle-class American wants to sell his house that he lived in for 30 years and makes a profit on the sale, he has to pay taxes on the gain, over a certain exempt amount. But if the Ford Foundation sells $200 million of property in an investment transaction, they pay zero tax, because our public policy has enriched and prioritized the foundations and the nonprofits that are destroying our country. This matters because if you work in private equity, if you’re a hedge-fund manager, or if you’re just a business that needs money to operate, you have to go to these people to get the capital to do what you need to do.

Vance clearly thinks that the traditional reluctance of successive Republican administrations to discourage or prohibit private transactions of which they claim to disapprove has been a great disadvantage for social conservatives. He notes that the interests of the Club for Growth and of the pro-life movement, for instance, are often in tension in ways that fusionist conservatives don’t like to discuss:

A couple of years ago Stacey Abrams said, about a Georgia abortion restriction, that this was a bad bill because it was bad for business. That was the argument of our new corporate, neoliberal class. And she was right. This is something that those of us on the right have to accept. When the big corporations come against you for passing abortion restrictions, when corporations are so desperate for cheap labor that they don’t want people to parent children, Stacey Abrams is right to say that abortion restrictions are bad for business.

During the Reagan era, social conservatives bet on the notion that they could team up with libertarian market advocates in order to prevent agents of the state from destroying the American way of life. But gradually, many social conservatives, like Vance, came to the conclusion that the opposite had occurred. Social liberals in charge of the state and economic liberals in charge of the economy had conspired unwittingly to raze the institutions and scrap the mores about which these social conservatives cared the most, in the name of maximizing individual autonomy in all areas of life. It’s unsurprising, then, that for social-conservative voters, many of whom believe their causes to have been battered and bruised by their dalliance with libertarian economics, the moral distinction between violent state power and persuasive economic power has been rendered meaningless. They did the right thing: They chose “persuasion,” and yet they feel as if the allegiance between liberalizing politics and liberalizing economics has left them utterly routed.

The socially conservative corners of the Right believe that their enemies on the left are using every weapon they have at hand to win the culture wars. The Goldwater/Reagan movement convinced these social conservatives that if they put their shoulders to the wheel of limiting state power, the result would be socially conservative culture. The implicit assumption of the fusionist program they bought into was that state power was necessarily liberal in social terms while market power was necessarily conservative. Forty years on from the Reagan revolution, this assumption has been thoroughly debunked.

American conservatives often claim that they care about procedural honesty and integrity whereas progressives go about executing their desired policies by hook or by crook. This isn’t quite true, however. The question isn’t whether one is going to have an outcome-oriented politics, but rather which outcome one values the most. Many conservatives value markets as worthwhile in and of themselves; these are the conservatives for whom violent state power remains the paramount evil of which to be wary in politics. But other conservatives professed allegiance to markets in the last century because they believed that markets would be friendly to their own vision of the common good. Put another way, the former group accepted a moral dichotomy between market power and state power because they really believed that freedom from violence was the supreme political good; but the latter group accepted this dichotomy because they believed that market power was red and state power was blue. Now that woke capital has shown conclusively that market power can be of a distinctly blue hue, many social conservatives are left asking why state power shouldn’t be red. (Leave aside, for the moment, the mixed success of the Reaganite project in actually limiting the state, which seems unable to shake its left-wing hue.)

As a part of this shift, some social conservatives have begun to question the libertarian habit of attributing violence exclusively to the state and persuasion exclusively to the market. As noted above, this distinction goes to the heart of the fusionist project. But the budding trust-busting impulse that one sees flowering in nationalist corners of the Right suggests a loss of faith in this hard-and-fast rule of Reaganite faith, with a consensus emerging in those corners that once businesses hit a certain quantity of market share or consumer reach, they become qualitatively different entities. Businesses’ ability to buy out and undercut their competitors shades over from persuasion to coercion by undermining the neutrality of the marketplace, the story goes. What’s more, the globalized supply chains of huge multinational businesses allow them to do violence to their own employees by using slave labor abroad or allow for appalling conditions at third-world sites. If companies are wealthy enough to run away from the parts of the world where they’re forced, by government power, to uphold workers’ rights to find cheap labor in countries with fewer rights for workers — in other words, less government power — can we really say that in such an instance capital is persuasive and the state is violent?

Ultimately, the future of the conservative movement in America will be determined by the kind of power that conservatives come to view as the greatest threat to them. There is a lot of data to suggest that the past half century has been far kinder to social conservatives than many of them seem to believe. It’s possible that socially conservative apocalypticism has been manufactured by media conglomerates distorting the pervasiveness of certain social trends to boost their ratings. But even if so, is not this distortion itself yet another example of how libertarian economics is driving social conservatives to distraction?

Speaking for myself, I’ll never be able to overcome my own political gag reflex at the naked and undisguised violence of the state, despite my social conservatism (which is considerable). State violence is not “cultural coercion” the way that advertising or corporate censorship is. It’s the real thing: coercion devoid of any adjective in front of it. But it’s nevertheless true that when social conservatives and libertarians came together to elect Ronald Reagan 40 years ago, they were each trying to limit two different kinds of power: the first group, social liberalism, and the second, state violence. Many hoped that both could be opposed seamlessly and simultaneously. After all, the shared foreign enemy of the Soviet Union had made them inevitable bedfellows. But what looked like inevitable, natural, and necessary political coalitions during the 20th century now seem increasingly contingent, unnatural, and artificial. It’s not at all clear that the center of American conservatism can hold given the unraveling and mutual estrangement. It’s not even clear that there still exists such a center at all.


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