The Corner

Politics & Policy

J. D. Vance: ‘American Dream Is Undoubtedly in Decline’

J.D. Vance (Operation Hope via YouTube)

Washington, D.C. — In a talk this morning at the National Conservatism Conference, author J. D. Vance said the conservative movement needs to move “beyond libertarianism” to address the fact that the simple American dream of giving one’s family a better life than you had as a kid is “undoubtedly in decline.” His remarks focused on lamenting various social ills and criticizing libertarianism for failing to use political power to fix them.

“I believe that conservatives have outsourced our economic- and domestic-policy thinking to libertarians,” Vance said. He defined libertarianism as “the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce.”

Vance gave the example of neuroscientists in Silicon Valley making more at tech companies such as Apple and Facebook to, as he put it, “addict our children to devices that warp their brains” than they do developing cures for diseases. According to Vance, libertarians aren’t concerned about that, because it is a situation produced by individual choices.

“Conservatives should be concerned about it,” he said. “We should care about a whole host of public goods and actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish some of those public goods.”

He returned to this theme later in his remarks after discussing the ravages of the opioid epidemic, which is the chief cause of declining life expectancies in the U.S.

“Libertarians are not heartless and I don’t mean to suggest that they are,” Vance conceded. “They often recognize many of the same problems that we recognize, but they are so uncomfortable with political power or so skeptical of whether political power can accomplish anything that they don’t want to actually use it to solve or even help address some of these problems.” He went on:

To me, ignoring the fact that we have political choices or pretending that there aren’t political choices to be made is itself a political choice. The failure to use political power that the public has given us a choice, and it’s a choice that increasingly has had and increasingly will have incredibly dire consequences for ourselves and our families.

Vance referenced someone whom he called “a very popular libertarian author,” but declined to name any names. The author, he said, talks a lot about isolation; the decline of community, family, and marriage; addiction to social media; and the skyrocketing rates of youth suicide.

“If you think those things are problems,” Vance said, “if you think children killing themselves are problems, if you think people not having families, not being married, feeling more isolated are problems, then you need to be willing to use political power when it’s appropriate to solve those problems.”

“If people are spending too much time addicted to devices that are designed to addict them, we can’t just blame consumer choice,” he added. “We have to blame ourselves for not doing something to stop it. If people are killing themselves because they’re being bullied in online chatrooms, we can’t just say parents need to exercise more responsibility.”

“We live in environment and in a culture that is shaped by our laws and public policy, and we can’t hide from that fact anymore,” Vance concluded. “The question conservatives confront at this key moment is this: Whom do we serve? Do we serve pure, unfettered commercial freedom? Do we serve commerce at the expense of the public good? Or do we serve something higher, and are we willing to use political power to actually accomplish those things?”

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