Who could imagine that the dour Bain Capital leverage-buyout king Mitt Romney could inspire a stimulating philosophical debate?
The main thrust of his recent column in The Washington Post was to challenge Donald Trump’s character, but as Tucker Carlson correctly responded it was Romney’s character as a moralist with few set positions (remember the model for Obamacare was Romney’s) which perfectly illustrated why the Republican moderate establishment is intellectually bankrupt.
The GOP establishment’s "overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods," the socially conservative Carlson responded. "Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy?"
Rather, "drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot."
What America needs, Carlson says, is "dignity, purpose, self-control, independence" and "above all, deep relationships with other people."
Our leaders "don’t even bother to understand our problems."
They only care about the sacrosanct economic market. Even fellow social conservatives follow "the libertarians they claim to oppose," ignoring that "families are being crushed by market forces."
While the more libertarian David French supported much of Carlson’s critique, he faulted it for promoting victimhood and exaggerating what government can do to repair it. Carlson did end opposing "market fundamentalism," but added that "Socialism is a disaster. It doesn’t work. It’s what we should be working desperately to avoid. But socialism is exactly what we’re going to get, and very soon, unless a group of responsible people in our political system reforms the American economy in a way that protects normal people."
Romney’s extreme pragmatism even provoked Ethics and Policy Center scholar Henry Olson, who in the past had urged conservative moderation. Olson targeted Romney and "educated, affluent former Republicans like him," who only think "a small course correction" is necessary, one that would in fact "further enrich [market] 'makers' like themselves."
Actually, social conservatives feel they are under assault from progressives who want to curtail their religious liberty; economic conservatives are afraid another progressive president will end limited government; and populists are upset with "an economic system that rewards financial wizards (like Romney) and punishes people like themselves." All support Trump as perhaps the only person standing between them, the market-makers, and ruin.
Hillbilly Elegy’s J.D. Vance correctly noted, however, that conservatism simply can no longer intellectually balance those tensions that exist within it. National Affairs editor Yuval Levin solution is to recognize that the factions aren’t "just a marriage of political convenience."
Yes, libertarian market risk-taking and creative destruction can reward the lowest cultural passions in ways that can undermine morality, family, community, nationalism and civic loyalties. But social conservative policies can discourage the competition, freedom, and ambitions that make the economy work for ordinary people.
Both are needed to balance the defaults of the other.
Levin continues that "Markets sometimes offer ways to solve problems from the bottom up and to allow for an edifying diversity of solutions to coexist at once." But market needs "a stable and orderly society made possible by sturdy families and strong social institutions. And freedom from unduly coercive authority is an essential prerequisite for making moral choices."
The "market is a means, not an end" and its successes should not be mistaken for higher-valued ends. So conservatives should be willing to constrain the market’s reach when it undermines them. "Conservatism has ceded its economic thinking too thoroughly to libertarianism since the 1990s in a way that has caused us to forget this. It is time for that to change, and so for some rebalancing of our priorities."
Levin concludes, Trump is neither the problem nor the solution but is "evidence of a problem that requires a solution" one that "is not going to be easy for defenders or for critics of Trump to accept."
This calls not for the "abandonment of conservatism" as some have suggested but for a conservatism that sees the balancing of freedom and order "as its charge," one which some have labeled philosophical fusionism.
But it seems to me that this debate has too closely equated economic markets with freedom. They are an important aspect of freedom but there not only are other aspects of freedom but other kinds of markets too. Adam Smith supported local welfare and the underappreciated Vincent Ostrom taught us there are markets of local governments that can help repair creative destruction of community and family.
And, of course, much ascribed to the economic market actually is caused by government experts making markets more destructive than they need to be.
A great deal of present conservative discontent can be alleviated simply by decentralizing more problems to prevent national so-called experts from disrupting both markets and communities.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution" and "Reagan’s Terrible Swift Sword: Reforming and Controlling the Federal Bureaucracy." He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He can also be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.