A likely feature of the political debate of the next few years will look something like this. Conservatives will make a specific argument about a specific public-policy dispute — say, NR’s editorial today questioning the need and wisdom of appropriating the second half of the TARP funds — and liberals will then respond not with a meaningful rebuttal of the specific argument but instead with a general attack on conservative credibility. “Your free-market ideology led to the worst recession since the Great Depression,” they will assert. “Why should we believe anything you say now?”
Getting ready for this tactic means mastering the details of the bipartisan economic policy mistakes that have led us to the present moment, including excessive money creation, coddling of Fannie and Freddie, whipsaw imposition of post-Enron accounting rules, and regulatory constraints on production and investment. But it also means shoring up the intellectual defense of our basic conservative principles. The process will need to include clear definitions (distinguishing between purportedly “pro-business” policy and true market-based policies where bad economic decisions are allowed to lead to loss and failure) and solid empirical studies demonstrating how political and economic freedom make people wealthier, healthier, and happier.
A good starting point would be to read the latest Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. In addition to perusing the rankings themselves, which is interesting and informative (notice how many of the top 10 countries lay within the Anglosphere), you should look at the supporting research showing a strong relationship between economic freedom and indicators such as poverty reduction and environmental improvement. Advocates of market economics have no reason to apologize. During the past four decades, their ideas have resulted in some of the most dramatic economic and social improvements in the history of the human race.
Other think tanks also offer helpful reminders of the soundness of conservative ideas translated into action:
• The Competitive Enterprise Institute has chronicled the phenomenal success of a key element of the deregulation movement of the late 1970s and 1980s: decontrol of the nation’s railroads.
• The Reason Foundation’s latest privatization report contains dozens of examples, in America and around the world, where public officials moved government assets or programs into private hands, conferring significant benefits on consumers, workers, and taxpayers.
More to come. Conservatism must be innovative, adaptive, and relevant — but it should never been defensive. We’re on the side of freedom, and it works.