More Populist, More Conservative

January 11, 2019

Conservatives on both sides of Tucker Carlson’s broadside against America’s elite last week should be grateful he launched it. In the wake of President Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 and Republicans’ loss of the House of Representatives in 2018, a debate about where the Right ought to go from here is the one we all need to be having.

Carlson’s must-see monologue may aim wide in a few particulars, but it seems to me directionally correct. He is right that both parties in Washington rely too much on aggregate economic statistics to measure their success. Government — including economic policy — does not exist simply to grow the economy, but to facilitate “the happiness of the people.” Obviously I see economic freedom and prosperity as vital components to social health and happiness, but they’re not the whole story.

Carlson is also right that there is an opportunity gap between America’s elite and everyone else; that those elites have the power to improve this situation; and that they choose not to do so, for reasons ranging from obliviousness to selfishness. I have made many of the same arguments over the years.

On the other hand, many of Carlson’s conservative and libertarian critics score some points, too. First, they caution Carlson against a populism that infantilizes the poor and working class and excuses them from moral agency and responsibility for their decisions. And second, they rise to defend market capitalism from a false politics of demagogic grievance. Market capitalism is not “a religion,” as Carlson said, but it is still the greatest engine of prosperity and opportunity ever devised by man, and conservatives should not abandon it simply because more of the economy’s recent losers happen now to be Republican voters.

Rather than trying to join this debate on one side or the other, it seems to me that conservatives should instead be thinking about how to reconcile the two. First, because I think the Republican party needs to become both more conservative and more populist to meet the challenges the country faces today. And second, because I think the inequalities and injustices Carlson rightly condemns are primarily caused not by the natural operations of the free market, but by elite manipulation of it.

It’s not the free market that is financializing the American economy and empowering Wall Street’s leveraged buyouts of American businesses. It’s the federal government’s preferential tax treatment of corporate debt and guarantee of “too big to fail” bailouts.

It’s not the “invisible hand” giving investment income preferential tax treatment over workers’ wages, even though in a globalized economy that discrepancy can incentivize American investors to create jobs overseas instead of here.

It’s not Adam Smith who simultaneously ended vocational tracking in American high schools while flooding college campuses with students and borrowed dollars that would have been better off elsewhere. Nor did Milton Friedman make it unprofitable for residential real-estate developers to build anything other than mid-rise apartments and McMansions. That’s federal and state policymakers.

It wasn’t capitalism that stripped religion from public schools and, indeed, the public square, denying working communities a source of social capital and solidarity they depended on. That was a group of activist courts.

There is no market principle empowering local zoning boards and school boards to artificially price working families out of good school districts. Or creating the occupational-licensure epidemic blocking low-skilled workers from promising careers. Or allowing border lawlessness and corporatist immigration policies to overwhelm America’s great assimilative melting pot. Or loading up our social safety net with marriage penalties. Or replacing human-scale voluntary associations with anonymous federal bureaucracies.

Those were policy decisions made by our political class, cheered along (sometimes led) by economic elites who directly and disproportionately benefited from them.

However well (or ill) intentioned, these policies have subtly but inexorably rigged the American economy, privileging elites at everyone else’s expense. The real problem is not market capitalism but the failure of our political class to adapt with it — its refusal to reform outdated public policies to harness the forces of globalization to the commonweal of all Americans. Correcting these inequities reforms is beyond neither the scope of policy nor the wit of man. (I have introduced some myself.) They simply require a reassessment of national economic policy in this new era of global economic competition.

The best path forward for Republicans, then, is for conservatives and populists to work together on a new synthesis — a reform agenda that would be more substantively useful and politically appealing than either side’s default platform.

Tucker Carlson is right that if we want to put America first, we’ve “got to put its families first.” Down the road, conservatives and populists may disagree about when and if that ever means putting government’s thumb on the scale for working families. But surely we can at least start by taking its boot off their neck.

Op-ed originally published by National Review