The Corner

What We’re Fighting For and Why

Speaker Boehner just can’t get over the fact that proponents of limited government and free markets won’t lend him their unconditional support when he stands for bigger government. Conservative congressional opposition, he told CBS recently, is driven by the desire to raise money rather than the desire to make the world a freer place. At most, he says, conservatives are just quibbling over tactics.

I can’t imagine that Mr. Boehner really believes this. The fights aren’t just about tactics — they reflect fundamental disagreements about the size and scope of government, the difference between being pro-market and pro-business, and more. Heritage Action’s Mike Needham sets out the real distinctions here in an excellent, in-depth essay for National Affairs:

[The Tea Party] has, over time, proposed a broad new plank for the conservative agenda: a commitment to combating the government favoritism and special-interest politics that too often stifle ideas for conservative reform.

Though some have called this flavor of conservatism “libertarian populism,” it is not libertarianism at all; rather, it is a proper conservatism. It is a commitment to dynamic capitalism rather than to the particular individuals and institutions that have already achieved success in our economy. The Tea Party is pro-market, not pro-business, and its primary contribution to the Republican platform has been a recognition of the distinction between the two concepts — a distinction that its donors would prefer to obscure.

The Tea Party is pro-market, not pro-business, and its primary contribution to the Republican platform has been a recognition of the distinction between the two concepts — a distinction that its donors would prefer to obscure.

For the record, it really is libertarians who’ve been highlighting the distinction between pro-business and pro-market and the risks of regulatory capture for years, but I take Needham’s point!

The best example of the GOP leadership’s penchant for taking the pro-business/anti-market stance was the fight for the reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank, where there really weren’t tactical disagreements — there was, simply, a divide in the party over whether the bank should exist or not.

Needham writes of the fight:

This is the starkest contrast between the grassroots and the party establishment, and it is best exemplified by the divide over reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, criticized in 2008 as “little more than a fund for corporate welfare” by then-senator Barack Obama. The status of the bank, which serves primarily to finance clients of Boeing, was a consistent point of dispute in the 113th Congress between the consultant class and conservatives like House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling, who urged House leadership last year, without success, to allow the bank to expire. That fight recalled similar debates on issues like agricultural subsidies and the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the housing market, where moneyed interest groups doggedly lobbied Congressional leadership to preserve pro-business policies in direct conflict with conservative principles. Such conflicts place conservatives directly at odds with the very business constituencies that the Republican establishment views as its financial base, making even the smallest reforms a heavy lift in the Republican conference.

I’ve written a lot about the case for ending Ex-Im in these pages and over at Mercatus. I’m not alone – Diane Katz of Heritage has a great piece in the Wall Street Journal making the case for getting rid of the bank. 

I recognize that many Republicans in Congress don’t want to quarrel with certain interest groups, like the ones backing Ex-Im, when there are so many pressing battles that need to be fought. But how can we trust Republicans to implement more challenging reforms, such as reforming Medicare and Social Security, if they won’t even do something as straightforward as letting the Ex-Im charter expire?

And for all those who see the current fights as destructive decause the odds of winning are slim, Needham has a good answer, too:

But to judge the worthiness of these fights only by the immediate outcomes achieved is to misunderstand their real purpose and consequences. Even the messiest of such conflicts can produce strategic dividends that too often go unrecognized by more risk-averse reformers who are largely focused on policy victories achievable in the near-term. Because the farm bill required enormous political capital to pass, Congress is far more likely to consider reforms in the next debate several years from now. The same is true of infrastructure reform. Because House Republicans challenged their leadership to address DACA this past summer, the party has been far better positioned to address the dangers of similar administrative amnesty schemes such as the proposal unveiled by the White House after the November elections. And on the most controversial of all these fights — the effort to defund Obamacare — the failure to achieve immediate success obscured the important long-term victory secured in the process: that the Tea Party successfully forced Republican office-holders to recommit to repeal in the post-2012 landscape and forced the media to treat the law’s status as a live issue rather than a settled policy matter. Obamacare opponents are far better positioned to achieve their goals as a result.

Such goals may seem inconsequential to those inclined to believe that the Republican establishment’s risk-averse instincts mask a legitimate commitment to attaining conservative policy achievements given the right political climate. The Tea Party, with plenty of history on its side, does not share that trust. Forcing members of Congress to engage publicly in debates critical to the nation teaches them how to discuss the issues, locks politicians into the right positions, and builds the buy-in necessary for reform. These are crucial intermediate steps toward the long-term goal of legislating that are often ignored by those who give the establishment the benefit of the doubt.

The battle of ideas is a long war. Where would education reform be if Milton Friedman hadn’t started fighting for school choice back in 1955, just because everyone thought he was nuts? Where would we be if Ronald Coase had given up on his idea to auction off radio spectrum, when he was asked in 1959 by the FCC commissioner if his proposal was a jokeWhere would we be if Friedrich Hayek and a few other free-market advocates hadn’t met in Switzerland to launch the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 in order to fight for freedom at a time when all seemed lost?

The fight can only be won by engaging in the battle of ideas now. It cannot be won by those who compromise from the get-go just to stay in power.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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